Open Badges: New Pathways and Storytellers in Education

Recently I attended “Badges for Learning: Creating your own path”, a MaRS Best Practices event about the future of badges in education and their implications, not only for individuals, but also for innovators in the sector. On the panel were notable reps from organizations presently pushing the boundaries of how knowledge is accredited in the open badges community: Charles Tsai, Director of Learning Networks, Ashoka Canada, Peter Janzow, Open Badges Lead, Pearson VUE, and Kathryn Meisner, Director, Hive Toronto at Mozilla. The panel discussion was moderated by Joe Wilson, Senior Strategist, Education, MaRS Discovery District and was followed by a ‘Deep Dive’ session in the afternoon.  It was a day rich with discovery and connection.  Here is an overview of what I learned: 

A badge tells a story. It captures learning. And, a collection of badges tells a story of what drives, motivates, and fuels an individual’s pursuit of knowledge. Badges speak beyond institutions to life aspirations; they form a fuller picture of an individual. Badges tell and show the story of learning for a lifetime.

So, what exactly are badges and how do they work?

Badges go by many names: digital badges, open badges, microcredentials, open credentials, open certification. A badge is an online emblem of a skill or achievement, interest or knowledge. Badges can represent traditional academic success or the attainment of proficiencies and competencies such as creativity, innovation, collaboration, teamwork, and leadership. Badges can be merited by people of all ages and they can make any significant achievements visible to prospective employers, educators, coaches, and organizations. They can be earned in formal settings like classrooms, courses or seminars, or they can be awarded for knowledge and involvements that take place in more informal environments, such as online communities, organization meetings, or extracurricular activities.


They differ from traditional diplomas and degrees in that they are rich with metadata and provide clickable evidence of achievement. Badges allow for testimonials, links, documents, sound files, images, and artifacts. They are game-changers for certification standards in that they change expectations on how knowledge and competence can be demonstrated. They are not static and they can expire. Unlike e-portfolios, badges are machine readable and searchable. Open badges from many different systems talk with each other and recognize each other as part of one coherent system.

So, where do they live?

Once acquired, badges are sent via email to be displayed on one’s online portfolio, social networking profiles, job sites, ‘passport’ or ‘backpack’ (the online equivalent of a Guide or Scout sash).

Badges are not only awarded at the completion of a course or project; they can be granular in scope, too. They can capture and reward stages in learning. A traditional transcript only reveals an overall mark a student earns in any given course. Transcripts do not indicate the areas or units where a student demonstrated mastery of a particular skill or acquisition of knowledge in a unit of study. Transcripts do not tell a complete story.  Through badging, students can display notable accomplishments and attain recognition for skills that would otherwise be hidden by a traditional transcript. The recognition of these skills may be the defining factor in what determines whether or not a worker secures employment or a student gains admittance to a post secondary institution. It provides a richer, more detailed account of an individual learner. Purdue University is one of several institutions of higher learning that is embracing badging as viable and valuable means to indicate competency, skill, and knowledge.  The University is not badging curriculum, but items within curriculum.


Badges are also gaining ground in the domain of continuing education where there is a movement toward open badges and a way from traditional degree programs.  In these environments learning is self-directed, motivated, and autonomous.  Udacity (a for-profit educational organization offering MOOCs), for example, recently launched nanodegrees to help funnel people to jobs quickly and efficiently.  In 2013, the Clinton Global Initiative committed to improve the futures of two million US students and workers with skills and credentials to access employment via Open Badges.  In 2014, the CGI, along with the Badge Alliance,  increased the reach of this commitment from two million US students and workers to ten million students and workers, worldwide.


Badges are changing the landscape of education and they are disrupting prevailing mindsets of how we learn and who decides if learning has taken place.  Schools will need to redefine and redesign curriculum. Just as badges are setting and defining expectations for certification standards, so to they are changing they ways schools think about acknowledging merit. Teachers and students in the 21st century know well that learning is happening beyond classrooms, beyond schools and online, in communities, and organizations.  This learning is now being recognized by institutions and employers who want to read a different story than what is presently available via traditional test scores and transcripts.


For more information about open badges and the open badge community, I recommend visiting the following organizations and networks:

Mozilla Open Badges: started as a “collaborative project between MacArthur Foundation, HASTAC and Mozilla and has continued to grow through an open, collaborative approach. It is designed, built and backed by a broad community of contributors, such as NASA, the Smithsonian, Intel, the Girl Scouts, and more. The open source model means that improvements made by one partner can benefit everyone, from bug fixes to new features.”

TakingItGlobal: “is one of the world’s leading networks of young people learning about, engaging with, and working towards tackling global challenges.”

Credly: recognizes lifelong achievement by offering platforms for verifying, sharing and managing digital badges and credentials.

Hive Learning Networks:  Are “a growing constellation of communities around the globe that are championing digital skills and web literacy through connected learning.”

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